Thursday, December 8, 2011

Day 8: Dipping into My Guilty Pleasures

Welcome to Day 8 of our 24 Days of Books. Today we're going to indulge in a little guilty pleasure. Oscar Wilde famously said, “I can resist everything but temptation.”  He also said, in the same breath, “the only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it.” These words were never truer than in December. Each of us has at least one personal guilty pleasure when it comes to books, and I have several. For this one last month of the calendar year, I yield to my temptation to read books about the performing arts.

I’m not talking highbrow academic treatises on obscure composers here. Nor am I fond of cheesy fan bios. My tastes run to memoirs by and biographies of performers and others associated with the performing arts (writers especially). Here are five of my favorite new ones, with a heavy slant to the worlds of theatre and performance:

My Song: A Memoir by Harry Belafonte leads the reader through the life of a most extraordinary performer and social activist whose public and private selves are imbued with a personal integrity that serves as a beacon for all who follow in his footsteps. Throughout his life, he has been at the very heart of the civil rights movement, beginning with his poverty-ridden childhood in Harlem and Jamaica, through his years in the U.S. Navy during World War II, to his close friendship with Martin Luther King and beyond. Indeed, this book can be read as a history of that era, but it is much more. It is a very personal look at the major players in the movement and the world in which Belafonte has long moved.  He has befriended many beloved and important figures in both entertainment and politics – Paul Robeson, Eleanor Roosevelt, the Kennedys, Sidney Poitier, Nelson Mandela, Tony Bennett,  and more. He writes about all with exceptional candor, pulling no punches and turning his loving but critical eye on our country’s cultural past.

Wendy and the Lost Boys: The Uncommon Life of Wendy Wasserstein by Julie Salamon is the first biography of one of the major playwrights of the baby boomer generation. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, the first woman playwright to win a Tony Award, Wendy Wasserstein was a Broadway luminary. In this deeply moving portrait, the author reveals Ms. Wasserstein’s most enigmatic character: herself. She was, by turns and also simultaneously: a daughter of the 1950s, an artist who came of age in the 1960s and 1970s, a powerful woman in 1980s New York, and a single mother at the turn of the century. Her very life spoke to the tensions and contradictions of an era of great change. Her loving family was difficult, her critically acclaimed work was her passion, and her legions of friends (many of them gay men, which partly explains the title) were steadfast. Sadly, she died too young, leaving behind a six-year-old daughter. This is the story of a famously private person (who kept both her pregnancy and her illness secret as long as she could, and never revealed the name of the person who fathered her child) who was most comfortable working in a very public forum.

Then Again by Diane Keaton is an unlikely twist on the celebrity memoir, and just what one would expect from an artist who is known for following her own path. This book tells the story of Diane’s mother, Dorothy Hall, a beautiful, intensely complicated, restless and creative woman who struggled to find an outlet for her talents as she raised a large family. Mrs. Hall kept journals, 85 of them -- literally thousands of pages of diary entries, collages, newspaper clippings and private notes about her marriage, her children, and herself. Her daughter draws on these journals to talk about the influence her mother had in her own life, and the bond that connected them. It was a bond that defined both their lives and one that Ms. Keaton obviously treasures and continues to emulate with her own children. This is an intimate look into the life of one of our most charming and accomplished actresses.

Drama: An Actor’s Education by John Lithgow is a look at the backstage life of a journeyman actor (and I mean that in the way that Mr. Lithgow would approve of, surely). Full of insider stories about his collaborations (professional and personal) with renowned performers and directors (including Mike Nichols, Bob Fosse, Liv Ullmann, and Meryl Streep), this book is largely a tribute to his most important influence: his father, Arthur Lithgow, who was an actor, director, producer, and great lover of Shakespeare. It’s the story of a boy who was smitten with the theatre at a very early age and has lived his life telling stories on and off the stage. The theatre worlds of New York and London come alive through these stories. His ruminations on the nature of theatre, film acting, and storytelling cut to the heart of why actors perform, and why we watch them do it. His memory is clear, his wit is sharp, and his candor is moving. A delicious treat.

My favorite performing arts book from last year was Stephen Sondheim’s Finishing the Hat, which was a compendium of lyrics from and stories about the musicals he wrote from the beginning of his career in 1954 through 1981. And now, the second and final volume of this quasi-memoir has just been published. It’s called Look, I Made a Hat, and it covers his career from 1981 through 2011. These things happen to be true: if you have the first book, you have only the first half of the story and so of course must get the second book; if you know the song and/or the show from which both titles are taken, you are a true Sondheim fan/nerd like me and must have both books; if you’re at all interested in the history and development of one of America’s few indigenous art forms you must read these books.  These are some of the shows that Stephen Sondheim wrote (lyrics, or music and lyrics): West Side Story, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, Sweeney Todd (my personal fave), Into the Woods, Sunday in the Park with George, and Gypsy. There is simply nobody who can match him in the history of American musical theatre. These books include all of the lyrics to all of his shows, plus hundreds of personal anecdotes, advice on songwriting, discussions of theatre history, photos and illustrations. Whew.

Also, fresh out of the box and lurking on our shelves, you can find memoirs and/or biographies of film critics Pauline Kael and Roger Ebert, actors Steve McQueen, Spencer Tracy, James GarnerRobert Redford, Jane Fonda, Cary Grant, and Rob Lowe, rockers and reality-TV stars Ozzy Osbourne and Steven Tyler, television funny people Tina Fey, Ellen Degeneres, Darrell Hammond and Jane Lynch, monologuist Spalding Gray, singer Frank Sinatra, and transgendered dancing star Chaz Bono. Surely you can find your own guilty pleasure in this mixed assemblage.

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